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CF-18 replacement: what are Canada's best options?

During the election, the Liberal Party claimed it would scrap the plans to purchase the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Now that they have formed the government, will they keep that promise?

An aviation systems technician runs through a final series of checks on a CF-18 Hornet fighter jet with the pilot before the next mission at Camp Patrice Vincent during Operation IMPACT on January 14, 2015. With a new Liberal government, will the existing plans for the CF-18 replacement project get redrawn? (DND)

THE NEW QUEST to replace the RCAF's aging CF-18 fighter jets Is now under way.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said his government will withdraw from the U.S.-led F-35 fighter jet program and Instead hold a competition for a less expensive aircraft to replace the military's CF-18s.

Public servants at the Department of National Defence as well as Public Services and Procurement Canada (formerly Public Works) are laying the initial ground work for that competition.

Trudeau's Cabinet is expected to discuss the way forward at a meeting in early December, according to aerospace industry sources.

Public Services and Procurement Canada has created a new office to oversee the acquisition. Paula Folkes-Dallaire, a senior public servant from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, started November 16 as senior director of the Future Fighter Capability project.

So far, three employees are on the Public Services and Procurement team, but it is unclear how large it will eventually become once the acquisition gains steam.

"The team will work closely with National Defence and Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada to Implement the government's direction," Michele LaRose, a spokeswoman from Public Services and Procurement Canada, stated In an email. "The procurement team will Implement the Government's decision on the way forward to replace the CF-18 fighter aircraft, focusing on options that match Canada's defence needs."

Trudeau has promised to quickly move on replacing the CF-18s but has not provided a timeline.

"We will launch an open and transparent competition to replace the CF-18s keeping In mind the primary mission of our fighter aircraft is the defence of North America," he said during the election campaign. "This process will also ensure that bids include guaranteed Industrial benefits for Canadian companies and workers."

The Liberals have also argued that Canada does not need a "stealth first-strike capability" for its defence requirements.

On November 6, the Liberal government Issued the mandate letters for its ministers, including those of the Minister of National Defence and the Minister of Public Services and Procurement.

In the letters Trudeau tells them to work together on launching "an open and transparent competition to replace the CF-18 fighter aircraft, focusing on options that match Canada's defence needs."

Department of National Defence sources tell Esprit de Corps that the RCAF will be required to come up with a new statement of requirements for the CF-18 replacement. The office of DND's Assistant Deputy Minister for Material (ADM MAT) will co-ordinate the eventual withdrawal from the F-35 project as well as support the RCAF.

"After completing the Seven Point Plan's Evaluation of Options in 2014, the RCAF established the Fighter Capability Office (FCO) charged with Future Fighter Capability Project (FFCP) requirements and the completion of the options analysis phase," RCAF spokesman Major Scott J.L. Spurr told Esprit de Corps.

"In accordance with standard practices, the FFCP is also supported by a Project Management Office (PMO FFCP) within ADM (MATERIAL)," he added.

"This structure will form the basis of a combined team between DND and PSP (Public Services and Procurement)," Spurr said.

Lockheed Martin has continued with a communications strategy of not acknowledging what is happening as a result of the election of the Trudeau government.

A Lockheed Martin spokeswoman said that Canada continues to remain a partner in the F-35 program and the company continues to support it in that aspect.

DND sources say that is "technically correct," but note that it doesn't take into account the Liberal government's promise to withdraw from the F-35 program.

The Liberal government's decision to dump the F-35 hasn't generated much of a backlash and is generally supported by the public, according to DND sources.

The RCAF is not happy, but the aircraft itself has proven to be controversial for politicians, DND and industry officials point out.

In fact, the F-35 became a major political headache for Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government. Although the Liberal government originally signed on to a research and development program for the plane, the Conservatives significantly expanded that involvement and in 2010 committed to buying 65 of the stealth aircraft.

DND originally claimed the project would cost around $14.7 billion, but then Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page put that price tag for 65 aircraft at around $29 billion. Auditor General Michael Ferguson also issued a report that concluded DND officials withheld key information from Parliament about the fighter jet purchase, underestimated costs and didn't follow proper procurement rules.

An independent audit on the F-35 acquisition determined the purchase would cost Canadians $44 billion over the 42-year life of the plane. That figure includes everything from maintenance to fuel.

Defence analysts point out that, unlike the election promise by Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien to scrap the acquisition of the EH-101 helicopters, there isn't expected to be a large cancellation penalty associated with shutting down participation in the F-35 project.

Alan Williams, the senior DND bureaucrat who signed the original memorandum that brought Canada into the F-35 program, said a Liberal government could withdraw without facing any financial penalties because the country has not yet officially committed to purchase any aircraft. "There would be no penalty," explained Williams, who was Assistant Deputy Minister for Materiel. "We could walk away."

Those companies with work on the F-35 vehemently disagree. As of December 2014, 33 Canadian aerospace firms have been awarded $637 million U.S. in contracts on the F-35 program, according to the Canadian government. The firms warn they could lose that work when Canada withdraws from the U.S. initiative.

But Trudeau has countered that there will be work for other Canadian companies. He argues that holding a competition for a new fighter jet would ensure Canadian firms receive work. Under the F-35 program there were no guarantees Canadian companies would be entitled to a specific amount of work when Canada purchased the aircraft.

"The way to proceed would be to first figure out what you as a government want a fighter aircraft to do and then proceed to an open competition," explained Williams. "That way the country gets the plane it needs and you maximize industry participation."

With the project to buy a new fighter aircraft back on the political agenda, which planes could be considered?

The candidates include the Eurofighter Typhoon, the Dassault Rafale, Boeing's Super Hornet and Saab's Gripen.

In 2009 there was talk about Saab promoting the Gripen but once the F-35 was selected by the Conservatives, the aircraft all but disappeared from the Canadian scene. Saab officials have told journalists they don't know whether the firm will bid on any upcoming Canadian fighter replacement project, but add that the Gripen is a cost-effective plane.

The Eurofighter Typhoon hasn't had much of a presence in Canada over the last few years.

Dassault Aviation Chairman Eric Trappier wrote Trudeau a letter of congratulations after the Liberals won the election. In the same letter he pitched the Rafale fighter.

But the Rafale, like Gripen and Typhoon, faces a major problem--the RCAF has always selected U.S.-built aircraft for its fighter jets.

"The Brits and the Europeans have already been talking about mothballing Typhoon production," explained defence analyst Martin Shadwick, who teaches strategic studies at York University. "And the Typhoon is not cheap."

"The Rafale has picked up more export orders and looks a little safer," he added. "But none of these aircraft are looking at long production runs and that will be (problematic) for Canada."

Shadwick also stated that the Canadian government could placate the U.S. and ease any issues over withdrawing from the F-35 by moving ahead and selecting the Boeing Super Hornet as Canada's new fighter aircraft.

Boeing highlights the Super Hornet's low cost and low maintenance price tag as two of the main selling points for its aircraft.

In addition, unlike the F-35, the Super Hornet has two engines, making it safer to fly, according to Boeing.

For its supporters, the Super Hornet still retains all the advantages of its classic Hornet predecessor, which makes it uniquely suited to Canadian and Arctic operations. It has a probe and drogue refueling system that is compatible with current RCAF air refueling capability.

There have been concerns that the Super Hornet assembly line will shut down because of a lack of orders. But in November the U.S. Navy announced that delays in the F-35C program will require it to do further life extensions on its F-18 fleet and to acquire an additional 24 to 36 Super Hornets.

The purchases will take place in 2018 fiscal year.

"F-18Es and Fs are the majority of our force going to 2035," RearAdm Michael Manazirtold U.S. lawmakers. "We might even fly those airplanes close to 2040."

Shadwick said Canada will select a fighter jet for its own defence needs. But there are also political considerations that will be kept in mind. A Canadian order for Super Hornets would keep the production line operating, increasing the possibility that the U.S. Navy would purchase additional aircraft at a later date.

"If Canada was instrumental in keeping the Super Hornet production line going, there would certainly be those in Washington who would see that as a positive," Shadwick noted. "But if we turned around and bought a European fighter, while at the same time withdrawing from the F-35 program, that will not win us friends in the U.S."

Caption: The CF-18 Hornet is a twin-engined supersonic tactical fighter with speeds up to Mach 1.8. Armed with sidewinder (under fuselage) and sparrow air-to-air missiles (at wing tip). The RCAF's CF-18s have undergone modernization projects to align the fighter aircraft with a fully integrated air capability thus increasing interoperability with our allies as well as our ability to respond to threats to North America. (DND)

Caption: ABOVE LEFT: The F-35 Lightning II is considered one of the most complex pieces of weaponry ever and is programmed with 8 million lines of software code, compared to an F-22 Raptor's 1.7 million. The F-35 jet's $400,000 helmet (pictured) gives the pilot a 360-degree view around their aircraft, allows them to see through its frame and it even allows pilots to share information with other F-35 jets nearby. (ROCKWELL COLLINS)

Caption: TOP RIGHT: In this 2010 test flight, the F-35 stealth fighter makes a vertical landing. (LOCKHEED MARTIN TEST PHOTO)

Caption: RIGHT: The F-35 can carry more than 3,500 pounds of ordinance in Low Observable (stealth) mode and over 18,000 pounds uncontested. (LOCKHEED MARTIN)

Caption: ABOVE: Royal Air Force No 11 Squadron Typhoon take part in Exercise Green Flag, USA. The Typhoon in the foreground is loaded with Enhanced Paveway 2 laser-guided bombs, litening 111 designater pod and 1,000-litre drop tanks. Both jets are fitted with a real-time range pod. (EUROFIGHTER GMBH)

Caption: RIGHT: In early 2014, the Dassault Rafale successfully completed its first test flights in a new heavily-armed configuration. Although the aircraft has received a number of export orders, it does not have a long production run, something Canada would prefer. (S. RANDE, DASSAULT AVIATION)

Caption: A U.S. Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet conducts a mission over the Persian Gulf. The Hornet, which could be the front runner should Canada cancel its commitment to purchase the F-35, has just been ordered for the U.S. Navy because of delays in the production of the F-35C. (U.S. NAVY)


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Publication:Esprit de Corps
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Dec 1, 2015
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